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Career Advice

Editorship as mentoring, collaboration and peer support

Academic editing can provide kinship and learning, not just judgment followed by celebration or tears.

BY KIM SOLGA | OCT 29 2021

Do you remember your very first academic publication?

I was in the third year of my PhD. I’d earned an A+ on a term paper I really liked, and the prof had scrawled, simply, “publish this” alongside the grade.

So I did what I thought I was supposed to do: I sent it to the top journal in my field.

Shortly afterward I got a kind but curt rejection from the editor, and promptly fell into despair.

I cried, licked my wounds, told myself I was a failure. I let some time pass. Then, I shyly reached out to a senior colleague who co-edited the journal where I had an assistantship. I asked if she wouldn’t mind reading the paper and giving me some pointers.

She said yes.

Why did I go to my boss at the journal, and not the prof who had graded the paper? While the prof had offered generic encouragement but no real feedback, the co-editor had always treated me with genuine respect. Joanne was neither scholar nor boss with me, just a person who happened to have more experience than I did. She was also one of the most perceptive editors at the journal, working in detail and with real care on all of her manuscripts.

I could sense implicitly that she could help me, and that in the process she would not judge me.

When I was a grad student I thought of editors as gatekeepers: senior scholars whose job it was to separate the academic imposters from the real researchers. Many editors still operate on this model, having learned it themselves as “The Way Things Are Done in Academia.”

But lots of us today are trying to do the job differently – trying to dismantle the hierarchies that still dominate academic editing. We approach editing as diversity work, as peer pedagogy, and as a support system that is not just about the job at hand, but that sees the whole author.

This was Joanne’s ethos, and thanks to her teachings, her patience, and her boundless kindness I realized academic editing could provide kinship and learning, not just judgement followed by celebration (sometimes) or tears (mostly).

Joanne guided me through the process of figuring out how to turn my essay into an article. She taught me how to restructure the piece so that the argument came through early and with confidence. How to redistribute the literature review so that it supported the development of the argument rather than simply prove my bona fides. How to signpost my argument throughout. How to find my own voice.

After peer review, she helped me recognize the reviewers’ feedback not as judgement but as further tools of learning. We’re all here to help each other,was the message she modeled. She helped me refine, push deeper, until we located the argument inside the argument I thought I was making.

We shared the ensuing Eureka! together, and my first publication was born – along with a lifelong mentoring relationship, and a fresh perspective on my academic future.

Joanne’s editorial pedagogy was profoundly affecting for me, and not just as an author. Twenty years on I’ve edited multiple books, journal issues, a book series, and I’ve just completed a five-year term as general editor at Theatre Research in Canada / Recherches théâtrales au Canada.

I’ve built my editorial career on the principles Joanne taught me, augmented of course by exposure along the way to other editing colleagues who were just as talented.

What are these principles? Here are the five I try hardest to embody, even if always imperfectly.

  1. Each time you receive a manuscript, remember your first time. Feel the cringe; experience the humility.
  2. Approach each author as a voice of value. If that voice seems at first glance not quite a “fit” for your project or venue, start by asking yourself “why?”
  3. Be proactive in amplifying difference – in authors, but also in peer reviewers. Humans all have implicit biases, and we all drift toward sameness. What kinds of work are we unwittingly weeding out as a result? Or favouring too much?
  4. Treat authors as collaborators and encourage them to regard the process as a collaborative one. Remember: we are all still learning from one another! (It’s even better, I’ve discovered, to work in editorial teams for exactly this reason.)
  5. Communicate openly, always: be frank, be honest, be respectful with authors. If the work is not good enough, it’s ok to say that. But it’s also not OK to stop there.

To mentor means to help navigate the system; it should also mean to work toward meaningful change within the system. I want future grad students to know that while it will always be scary to send that first submission out, the process that follows can and should be supportive, instructive, kind, even remarkable. It can be a journey we undertake together.

Kim Solga is a professor of theatre studies at Western University, where she holds an Arts and Humanities Teaching Fellowship (2021-24). She is the co/editor of nine books and journal issues, as well as the Bloomsbury Methuen series Theory for Theatre Studies (with Susan Bennett). Her editorial mentor is professor Joanne Tompkins at the University of Queensland. She writes about activism, performance, teaching, and editing at http://theactivistclassroom.wordpress.com.

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